Last week’s firestorm about the casting notice for the Broadway juggernaut “Hamilton” was frustrating, disappointing, enlightening and educational. On its face, it was a simple disagreement about the language in an employment ad, and the distinction between hiring qualifications (i.e., the race/ethnicity of a character) and Equal Employment Opportunity (the race/ethnicity of an actor).
That it was blown up into a “war” between “Hamilton” and Actors’ Equity Association, the union that represents more than 50,000 professional actors and stage managers across the United States, was mostly an unfortunate byproduct of the informational echo chamber in which we live. As the President of Actors’ Equity, I can unequivocally state not only that we are ready to move on, but also that our industry desperately needs for us to do so.
Anyone who followed the #Oscarssowhite controversy in 2015-16 probably understands that diversity in casting is a daunting mountain for the entertainment industry to climb. “Hamilton” is a valuable benchmark in that respect, unquestionably demonstrating that there is a robust audience for stories told by actors of color; it also tells us that if the story and the performances are strong enough, patrons will pay hundreds if not thousands of dollars for that experience.
With its decidedly race-specific casting of primarily non-Caucasian performers who portray many of the very real (and very white) historical figures involved in the birth of the United States, “Hamilton” makes an extremely visible case that both artistic and financial success can be directly traced to imaginative casting and creative choices.
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But as rightly celebrated as this musical is, it would be shortsighted to assume that it solves the industry’s diversity problem, any more than electing Barack Obama solved America’s. Indeed, the theater is a microcosm of the nation, in terms of the forces at work and the problems that need remedies. Certainly, one should expect that entrenched power brokers throughout the industry may dig in their heels to defend existing paradigms, as power brokers do in just about every other context. Nor should “Hamilton” and similar shows be expected to satisfy some kind of diversity quota, allowing the rest of the status quo to stand unchallenged. While it could be argued that some diversity is better than none, this is simply not good enough.
The statistics tell us that changing the way we think of race and ethnicity in the theater will not be easy. Of Equity’s 50,823 active members, 68% identify themselves as Caucasian. This is not because there aren’t many gifted minority performers; a look at any number of current Broadway shows (the upcoming “Shuffle Along,” for example, boasts an astounding roster of talent) clearly disproves that assertion. It’s because we need to do better at fostering artists of color.
In 2014, American Theatre magazine reported that over a six-year period, only four playwrights of color were featured on the publication’s annual lists of the top 10 most-produced playwrights. If we are going to increase diversity among performers, we also have to produce more plays and musicals that tell the stories of traditionally underrepresented communities. This also applies to stories by and about women, people with disabilities, and a host of other descriptors that go far beyond skin color.
But just as imperative as changing the numbers is evolving the industry’s thoughts about what a successful show can look like. Theater is an imagination, a troupe of actual contemporary people coming together to put on a show. The actors know this. The audience knows this. And with very few exceptions, such as when the cultural/racial specificity of a character is central to the story (the recent, much-discussed production of Katori Hall’s “The Mountaintop,” in which a white actor was cast as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., comes to mind), it does not matter what color the actors are.
Sure, the real-life equivalents of the characters in “Oklahoma!” would probably have been white. But they also probably wouldn’t have done dream ballets and burst into spontaneous songs about their feelings. Short people play tall people. People play animals. Straight people play LGBT people, and vice versa. There is absolutely no reason why, in the vast majority of cases, traditionally underrepresented actors cannot play white characters — or even better, play characters whose race is absolutely irrelevant to the story being told.
And a note to producers, creatives and casting directors who moan that despite what they refer to as their best efforts, qualified minority actors don’t show up to audition: A lot of them do show up, but become frustrated when they are, for example, relegated to supporting roles simply because of the shape of their eyes. Or they stop showing up entirely because you never hire them. Great people leave this unstable and difficult business every single day because they are “typed out” before they even get to sing one note, dance one step, or speak one line.
If there is one thing we can be sure of, it is that “Hamilton,” like dozens of shows before it, will be the first theatrical experience for tens of thousands of young audience members. And among their ranks will be many who will decide, upon seeing the rainbow of faces that look more like theirs than Broadway typically does, to become performers themselves. They will bring to our industry an art that is rooted in a richly diverse and challenging American landscape, and we will be better for it. These creators and these audiences will not just expect, but demand, the opportunity to tell their stories on stage. It is up to us to make sure that this can happen.
Kate Shindle is the president of Actors’ Equity Association, the labor union that represents Actors and Stage Managers. Shindle has starred on Broadway in “Cabaret,” “Legally Blonde,” “Wonderland” and “Jekyll & Hyde,” and is the author of “Being Miss America: Behind the Rhinestone Curtain.”